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A "superdelegate" or an "unpledged delegate" is a delegate to the Democratic National Convention or Republican National Convention that is seated automatically, based on their status as current (Republican and Democratic) or former (Democratic only) party leader or elected official. Other superdelegates are chosen during the primary season. All the superdelegates are free to support any candidate for the nomination. This contrasts with convention delegates that are selected based on the party primaries and caucuses in each U.S. state, in which voters choose among candidates for the party's presidential nomination.

Although "superdelegate" was originally coined and created to describe this type of Democratic delegate, the term has become widely used to describe these delegates in both parties,[1] even though it is not an official term used by either party.

For Democrats, superdelegates fall into two categories:

  • delegates seated based on other positions they hold, who are formally described (in Rule 9.A) as "unpledged party leader and elected official delegates"[2] (unpledged PLEO delegates); and
  • additional unpledged delegates selected by each state party (in a fixed predetermined number), who are formally described (in Rule 9.B) as "unpledged add-on delegates" and who need not hold any party or elected position before their selection as delegates.[2]

For Republicans, there are generally 3 unpledged delegates in each state, consisting of the state chairman and two RNC committee members.

A common criticism is that unpledged delegates could potentially swing the results to nominate a candidate that did not receive the majority of votes during the primaries.


  • Comparison to pledged delegates 1
  • History 2
  • In 2008 3
  • Criticism 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Comparison to pledged delegates

Democratic Party rules distinguish pledged and unpledged delegates. Pledged delegates are selected based on their announced preferences in the contest for the presidential nomination. In the party primary elections and caucuses in each U.S. state, voters express their preference among the contenders for the party's nomination for President of the United States. Pledged delegates supporting each candidate are chosen in approximate ratio to their candidate’s share of the vote. They fall into three categories: district-level pledged delegates (usually by congressional districts);[3] at-large pledged delegates; and pledged PLEO delegates. In a minority of the states, delegates are legally required to support the candidate to whom they are pledged.[4] In addition to the states' requirements, the party rules state (Rule 12.J): "Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them."[2]

By contrast, the unpledged PLEO delegates (Rule 9.A) are seated without regard to their presidential preferences, solely by virtue of being current or former elected officeholders and party officials. Many of them have chosen to announce endorsements, but they are not bound in any way. They may support any candidate they wish, including one who has dropped out of the presidential race.[5] The other superdelegates, the unpledged add-on delegates (Rule 9.B), who need not be PLEOs, are selected by the state parties after some of the pledged delegates are chosen,[2] but they resemble the unpledged PLEO delegates in being free to vote as they wish.

Unpledged PLEO delegates should not be confused with pledged PLEOs. Under Rule 9.C, the pledged PLEO slots are allocated to candidates based on the results of the primaries and caucuses.[2] Another difference between pledged PLEOs and unpledged PLEOs is that there is a fixed number of pledged PLEO slots for each state, while the number of unpledged PLEOs can change during the campaign. Pledged PLEO delegates are not generally considered superdelegates.

The process of selecting Democratic Party delegates is described on the Democratic Party's website.


After the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party made changes in its delegate selection process, based on the work of the McGovern-Fraser Commission. The purpose of the changes was to make the composition of the convention less subject to control by party leaders and more responsive to the votes cast during the campaign for the nomination.

Some Democrats believed that these changes had unduly diminished the role of party leaders and elected officials, weakening the Democratic tickets of Jimmy Carter. The party appointed a commission chaired by Jim Hunt, the then-Governor of North Carolina, to address this issue. In 1982, the Hunt Commission recommended and the Democratic National Committee adopted a rule that set aside some delegate slots for Democratic members of Congress and for state party chairs and vice chairs.[6] Under the original Hunt plan, superdelegates were 30% of all delegates, but when it was finally implemented for the 1984 election, they were 14%. The number has steadily increased, and today they are approximately 20%.[7]

In 1984 only state party chairs and vice chairs were guaranteed superdelegate status. The remaining spots were divided two ways. The Democrats in Congress were allowed to select up to 60% of their members to fill some of these spots. The remaining positions were left to the state parties to fill with priority given to governors and big-city mayors. In 1988, this process was simplified. Democrats in Congress were now allowed to select up to 80% of their members. All Democratic National Committee members and all Democratic governors were given superdelegate status. This year also saw the addition of the distinguished party leader category (although former DNC chairs were not added to this category until 1996, and former House and Senate minority leaders were not added until 2000). In 1992 was the addition of a category of unpledged "add-ons", a fixed number of spots allocated to the states, intended for other party leaders and elected officials not already covered by the previous categories. Finally, beginning in 1996, all Democratic members of Congress were given superdelegate status.[8]

In the 1984 election, the major contenders for the presidential nomination were Gary Hart and Walter Mondale. Each won some primaries and caucuses. Mondale was only slightly ahead of Hart in the total number of votes cast but won the support of almost all superdelegates and became the nominee.[9]

The superdelegates have not always prevailed, however. In the Democratic primary phase of the 2004 election, Howard Dean acquired an early lead in delegate counts by obtaining the support of a number of superdelegates before even the first primaries were held.[10] Nevertheless, John Kerry defeated Dean in a succession of primaries and caucuses and won the nomination.

In 1988, a study found that superdelegates and delegates selected through the primary and caucus process are not substantively different in terms of viewpoints on issues from each other. However, superdelegates are more likely to prefer candidates with Washington experience than outsider candidates.[11]

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the superdelegates made up approximately one-fifth of the total number of delegates. The closeness of the race between the leading contenders, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, led to speculation that the superdelegates would play a decisive role in selecting the nominee, a prospect that caused unease among some Democratic Party leaders.[12] Obama, however, won a majority of the pledged delegates[13] and of the superdelegates, and won the Democratic presidential nomination.[14]

In 2008

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, superdelegates cast approximately 823.5 votes, with fractions arising because superdelegates from Michigan, Florida, and Democrats Abroad are entitled to half a vote each. Of the superdelegates' votes, 745 are from unpledged PLEO delegates and 78.5 are from unpledged add-on delegates, although the exact number in each category is subject to events.

There is no fixed number of unpledged PLEO delegates. The number can change during the campaign as particular individuals gain or lose qualification under a particular category. The unpledged PLEO delegates are: all Democratic members of the United States Congress, Democratic governors, members of the Democratic National Committee, "[a]ll former Democratic Presidents, all former Democratic Vice Presidents, all former Democratic Leaders of the U.S. Senate, all former Democratic Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives and Democratic Minority Leaders, as applicable, and all former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee." There is an exception, however, for otherwise qualified individuals who endorse another party’s candidate for President; under Rule 9.A, they lose their superdelegate status.[2] (In 2008, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut endorsed Republican John McCain, which, according to the chairwoman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, resulted in his disqualification as a superdelegate.[15] Lieberman's status had, however, previously been questioned because, although he is a registered Democratic voter and caucuses with the Democrats, he won re-election as the candidate of the Connecticut for Lieberman Party and is listed as an "Independent Democrat".[16] The count for Connecticut's delegates in the state party's delegate selection plan, issued before his endorsement of McCain, appears to exclude Lieberman,[17][18] and he was not included on at least one list of PLEO delegates prepared before his endorsement.[19])

The unpledged add-on delegate slots for the various states total 81, but the initial rule had been that the five unpledged add-on delegates from Michigan and Florida would not be seated, leaving 76 unpledged add-on delegates.[20] Michigan and Florida were being penalized for violating Democratic Party rules by holding their primaries too early.

As of February 13, 2008 one analysis found that the 2008 Democratic National Convention would have 794 superdelegates.[21] The exact number has changed several times because of events. For example, the number decreased as a result of the death of Representative Tom Lantos, the move from Maine to Florida of former Maine Governor Kenneth M. Curtis,[22] and the resignation of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. (Because New York's new Governor, David Paterson, is an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, he was already a superdelegate before becoming Governor.[23]) On the other hand, the number increased when special elections for the House of Representative were won by Democrats Bill Foster, André Carson, Jackie Speier, and Travis Childers.[24]

The biggest change came on May 31 as a result of the meeting of the national party's Rules and Bylaws Committee, which lessened the penalty initially imposed on Michigan and Florida. The party had excluded all delegates (including superdelegates) from either state. The Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to seat all these superdelegates (as well as the pledged delegates from those states) but with half a vote each.[25] That action added 55 superdelegates with 27.5 votes. The total number of superdelegates can continue to change until the beginning of the convention (Call to the Convention Section IV(C)(2)).

Pledged delegates from state caucuses and primaries will number 3,566, casting 3,409.5 votes, resulting in a total number of delegate votes of 4,233. A candidate needs a majority of that total, or (as of June 5) 2,117, to win the nomination.[26][27] Superdelegates account for approximately one fifth (19.6%) of all votes at the convention. Delegates chosen in the Democratic caucuses and primaries account for approximately four-fifths (80.4%) of the Democratic convention delegates.[26][28]

The Politico found that about half of the superdelegates are white men, compared to 28% of the Democratic primary electorate.[29]

In the Republican Party, as in the Democratic Party, members of the party’s national committee automatically become delegates without being pledged to any candidate. In 2008, there are 123 members of the Republican National Committee among the total of 2,380 delegates to the 2008 Republican National Convention.[28] There are three RNC delegates (the national committeeman, national committeewoman, and state party chair) for each state.[30]


The term "superdelegate" itself was used originally as a criticism of unpledged delegates. Susan Estrich argued that these delegates, who would be predominantly white and male, would have more power than other delegates because of their greater freedom to vote as they wish.[31]

The Democratic Party has faced accusations that it has been conducting its nominating process in an undemocratic way,[9][32][33] because superdelegates are generally chosen without regard to their preferences in the presidential race and are not obligated to support the candidate chosen by the voters.

Television commentator Dan Abrams has called it "troubling" that the superdelegates might decide the 2008 race, arguing, "Each of the superdelegates' votes is now equivalent to about 10,000 Democratic voters."[34] There are online petitions calling on the superdelegates to support the candidate who does best in the primaries and caucuses.[35] On the other hand, Geraldine Ferraro, who served on the Hunt Commission, has defended the inclusion of superdelegates as being beneficial to the party; she argues that they should exercise independent judgment in voting for a presidential nominee.[36]

Delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses may not exactly reflect the votes cast, but Democratic party rules require proportional allocation rather than winner-take-all.[37]


  1. ^ Marcus, Ruth (January 17, 2008). "Looking Beyond Tsunami Tuesday".  
  2. ^ a b c d e f  
  3. ^ "Delegate types explained". The Boston Globe. June 2, 2008. 
  4. ^ Sinderbrand, Rebecca (March 26, 2008). "Pledged delegates up for grabs, Clinton says". Retrieved June 11, 2008. 
  5. ^ "Romney suspends presidential campaign". February 7, 2008. 
  6. ^ Barnes, James A.; Stone, Peter H. (February 22, 2008). "The Art of Wooing".  
  7. ^ Nather, David (February 25, 2008). "Leaping Voters In a Single Bound".  
  8. ^ Terry Michael, The Democratic Party's Presidential Nominating Process. March, 2004 (pages 14-15)
  9. ^ a b Berman, Ari (February 18, 2008). "Not So Superdelegates".  
  10. ^ Lynch, Dotty; Beth Lester (January 17, 2004). "Dean Leads 'Superdelegate' Count".  
  11. ^ Are "Superdelegates" Super? Herrerra, Richard, Political Behavior, Vol. 16, No. 1. (Mar., 1994), pp. 79-92.
  12. ^ Nagourney, Adam; Hulse, Carl (February 10, 2008). "Neck and Neck, Democrats Woo Superdelegates". The New York Times. 
  13. ^  
  14. ^ "Superdelegates by Position". Democratic Convention Watch. June 7, 2008. Retrieved June 30, 2008. 
  15. ^ Pazniokas, Mark (February 6, 2008). "Lieberman No Longer a Super Delegate". Archived from the original on February 8, 2008. Retrieved February 7, 2008. 
  16. ^ CAPITOL WATCH: Obama leads Clinton, 6-1, Among CT Superdelegates
  17. ^
  18. ^ "2008 Democratic Convention Watch: Everybody wrong on Lieberman superdelegate status". February 22, 2008. Retrieved August 22, 2009. 
  19. ^ Office of Party Affairs and Delegate Selection (January 7, 2008). "Unpledged PLEO Delegates -- by state" (PDF). The Boston Globe. Retrieved May 17, 2008. 
  20. ^ "Add-on superdelegate selection schedule". 2008 Democratic Convention Watch. March 9, 2008. Retrieved March 19, 2008. 
  21. ^ Follmer, Max (February 13, 2008). "Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About Delegates And Superdelegates".  
  22. ^ "2008 Democratic Convention Watch: Superdelegate from Maine moves to Florida - Superdelegate total now 794". February 28, 2008. Retrieved August 22, 2009. 
  23. ^ "With Spitzer out, number of Democratic superdelegates drops by 1".  
  24. ^ "2008 Democratic Convention Watch: Superdelegate Ups and Downs". August 22, 2008. Retrieved August 22, 2009. 
  25. ^  
  26. ^ a b "The Primary Season: 2008 Democratic Calendar".  
  27. ^ "It's 2117.0 to win". May 31, 2008. Retrieved August 22, 2009. 
  28. ^ a b "Election Center 2008: Delegate Scorecard". CNN. 
  29. ^ "White men hold superdelegate power balance - Josephine Hearn -". Retrieved August 22, 2009. 
  30. ^  
  31. ^ Karmack, Elaine (February 14, 2008). "A History of 'Super-Delegates' in the Democratic Party".  
  32. ^ Snell, Teddye (January 9, 2008). "A Presidential Primer". Tahlequah Daily Press. 
  33. ^ Chaddock, Gail Russell (February 20, 2008). "If Superdelegates Pick Nominee, Democrats Face Backlash". Christian Science Monitor. 
  34. ^  
  35. ^ "Superdelegates loom over Democratic race".  
  36. ^  
  37. ^ Cook, Rhodes (2004). The Presidential Nominating Process: A Place for Us?. Rowman & Littlefield.  

External links

  • Superdelegate Transparency Project Superdelegate Transparency Project, a wiki with details of the superdelegates
  • Democratic Super Delegate Tracker - an up-to-date count of all Democratic super delegates, including news, endorsements and an overall count
  • Democratic Convention Watch - lists which superdelegates have and have not endorsed a candidate
  • List of Democratic superdelegates
  • "Delegate Selection Rules for the 2008 Democratic National Convention" - official Democratic Party rules (note: this is a redirect from the link, on
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